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Dining with compassion
22 October 2005
People are being urged to be more thoughtful about animal cruelty when choosing what to eat, writes Jill Stark

Twenty-five years after Anna Mumford got a job in a slaughterhouse, it's not the smell or the blood that she remembers. It's the fear. She's haunted by the look in the eyes of petrified cows being herded into sheds to be shot in the head.

It's an image that changed her life. Overnight she stopped eating meat, and soon after became a strict vegan, masticating nothing derived from animals and using no animal-based products.

Mumford's story is typical of many who choose to adopt a vegan or vegetarian life-style. It could be described as a "lightbulb" moment - a defining event from which there is no turning back.

Mumford grew up in a typical English farming community and was an unquestioning meat-eater when she made the change. For her it was a simple choice to live cruelty-free, but it didn't seem enough. She wanted to arm the public with information on animal cruelty in the hope that light-bulbs might go on all over the world.

As the organiser of Australia's only Cruelty Free Lifestyle Expo, she's achieved much in the way of raising awareness. Thousands have attended the event since its inception three years ago, and each year more businesses with a vegan or vegetarian ethos have jumped on board with workshops and sponsorship.

Mumford, who is a member of the expo's two main sponsors, Choose Cruelty Free and Animal Liberation Victoria, believes the event is an invaluable tool for those who already follow a plant-based diet, as well as those looking to change to a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle. It's also, she says, a chance to "gently" show people why a vegan diet is the only way to live a truly cruelty-free life.

"This is an expo about how to help yourself, the animals and the environment. If we eat better and live better, we're going to feel better," Mumford says. "We're saying, help yourself by looking at the alternatives, then you can help the animals by being aware about all the products that are tested on them, and all the foods that contain animal products.

"Something like gelatine, for example - people don't realise that it's ground-up bones and tendons. It's in so much. It's in biscuits, it's in confectionery.

When people want to go vegan, it's overwhelming if you think there's not only the food to think about, but the clothes and household products, cosmetics, toiletries. "People don't know where to start and they become paralysed. We want people to be informed, because the majority of people are compassionate. They have a conscience, and that will take them where they want to go."

Mumford, a mother of four from Wantirna South (her children and husband are vegans) is fiercely passionate about the issue and maintains that the "logical conclusion" to a cruelty-free lifestyle is becoming a vegan. She reserves her harshest criticism for animal husbandry, but she believes even vegetarian food can reach our table through cruel practices.

"You might think, ‘Oh, eggs are fine', but what about battery cages where the poor bird can't even stretch, and there's three to a cage and they peck each other and have no means of getting out so they're stressed. With free-range you still have to kill the male chicks, because they're no good for the egg producing.

"On a larger scale you've got a company like KFC who now want to get their chickens ready much quicker, so they're giving them special growth - promoting hormones, and they're building them up with certain foods so that when they're six weeks old they're the size and weight of a three-month-old, but they can't stand up because their bones are too weak. So their bones are broken, they're deformed, and these are the chickens that are being sold for people to eat.

Like born-again Christians who want to spread the word after they've been "saved", there's a risk that Mumford and her peers could alienate the public they're trying to reach. It's a pitfall she's all too aware of, but insists that no holier-than-thou preaching or shock tactics are being employed in conveying the cruelty-free message.

"I'm not telling people what to do. We believe that the more information someone has, the better their ability to make a decision. They might think they'd like to stop eating meat, but they don't know what to eat, so they just go and buy the meat again.

 

"It seems we're really on the cusp of something at the moment. The news is appalling with bird flu and everything that's happening with global warming, and people are slowly starting to see the cost of the massive destruction we're causing to the earth."

"There are so many shops full of vegan products. If you want to have a mock schnitzel or mock nuggets or you've got meat-eating friends coming around, serve them that; they'll barely know the difference. It's got that fibrous texture, but it's all made from soy. If you arm people with the knowledge, they can think, ‘Hey, I don't have to have that'.

In Melbourne, a city that's embraced the soy latte, there's no shortage of vegan and vegetarian outlets. Few suburbs are without options for those following a plant-based diet, but Smith Street in Collingwood is perhaps one of the most vegan-friendly shopping strips. Pronto Brontos serves a vegetarian fast-food feast of burgers, schnitzels and nuggets, the Las Vegan Bakery offers six kinds of vegan cakes and 10 vegan muffins, and Feast On Vegan is a fish-and-chip shop with a difference.

Mumford recently organised a Vegan "shopping" tour of Melbourne that took day-trippers to 30 vegan and vegetarian outlets in the city.

The proliferation of veggie businesses in Melbourne is a result of simple economics: the market supplying what the consumer wants. Sienna Blake, the editor of national magazine Vegan Voice, says world events and growing levels of sickness are prompting a trend towards veganism.

"It seems we're really on the cusp of something at the moment," Blake says. "The news is appalling with bird flu and everything that's happening with global warming, and people are slowly starting to see the cost of the massive destruction we're causing to the earth.

"We don't have time to sit back and wonder what we're going to do about it. Heart disease, cancer and the obesity epidemic are all linked to a meat-based diet. As people get sicker and fatter, the information about a plant-based diet will gradually get out there."

The popular belief that humans require meat in their diets to remain healthy is, Blake maintains, a misconception fuelled by those with vested interests. "Our diets are not lacking from anything animal-based - we're suffering from excess. We've been led to believe that as soon as someone says the word ‘protein' we think meat, and it's simply not true.

"But we're up against groups like the meat and dairy industry with massive amounts of money and huge subsidies," Blake says.

Visitors to the expo will receive advice and information not only on changing to a cruelty-free diet, but on how to apply the principle to other aspects of their lives. Consumers may be unaware that many household products, cosmetics, clothing or medicines have involved some degree of animal cruelty before arriving on shelves.

Bringing ethical and scientific arguments against the use of animals in research to the public's attention is the aim of the Australian Association for Humane Research. Its CEO Helen Rosser says there's now greater awareness about animal testing, but that hasn't put an end to the practice.

"The public are generally of the view that animal research is a necessary evil, because pro-vivisectionists use the emotive argument of choosing between your child and the dog, but this is a totally invalid argument," Rosser says.

In a world with ever-increasing demands on our time, it could be argued that it's just too difficult to read every label and seek out cruelty-free products. But Sandy Anderson, who started her own business, Veganpet, creating vegan-friendly food for cats and dogs, believes that the more the public's conscience is pricked, the more products like hers will flood the mainstream market.

"We could all consume a lot less meat and we could all take a damn good look at how we are killing and what we're doing," Anderson says. "People are really looking around and looking at their own food and what's in it. They're opting for organic or natural food, and I can see a big future for vegan products.

"You need the bigger companies to come on board, and at the moment it's not financially viable for them. The bottom line for them is always going to be the dollar. As public attitudes change, it will push the big companies into looking at themselves."